Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Courtesy of Deep Heaven, Part VI: Largesse

‘Would I push my burden on to anybody else?’
‘Not if you insist on making a universe for yourself,’ he answered. ‘If you want to disobey and refuse the laws that are common to us all, if you want to live in pride and division and anger, you can. But if you will be part of the best of us, and live and laugh and be ashamed with us, then you must be content to be helped. You must give your burden up to someone else, and you must carry someone else’s burden. I haven’t made the universe and it isn’t my fault. But I’m sure that this is a law of the universe, and not to give up your parcel is as much to rebel as not to carry another’s. You’ll find it quite easy if you let yourself do it.’
‘And what of my self-respect?’ she said.
He laughed at her with a tender mockery. ‘O, if we are of that kind!’ he exclaimed. ‘If you want to respect yourself, if to respect yourself you must go clean against the nature of things, if you must refuse the Omnipotence in order to respect yourself, though why you should want so extremely to respect yourself is more than I can guess, why, go on and respect.’

—Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell

✠     ✠     ✠

I pass now to the next aspect of the Anglican patrimony of courtesy, to a quality that I have called Largesse. I might, following my master Williams, have called it Exchange, and in general I think that is the better name. However, I chose the other term for two reasons. One is that exchange, in American English, is (to my ears anyway) a rather businesslike word: economical, impersonal, a little cold. Nothing could be further from what Williams meant by the word; another of its synonyms in his terminology is the practice of Substituted Love. This leads me into my second reason for using the word largesse: exchange, in Williams’ writings, could go very far indeed—he thought it possible, ordinary even, that any two souls could, under God, make an agreement that one would accept the pain of worry or fear or even physical suffering of the other, and the burden of those experiences would really be transferred. I can make little comment on this, since my only experience with such substitution is of that kind realized by the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, which, while glorious, shine with a light that dazzles the everyday intellect.

Beata Beatrix, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1870

But by largesse I mean something broader and simpler than any such mystical intercommunion of experiences. It’s something that we generally describe as generosity, but that doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the thing. For generosity only really covers one ‘side,’ that of the person giving; but the gratitude of the recipient is part of the same movement, as the humility of the penitent is part of the same movement of forgiveness as the pardon of the absolver.1 Likewise, the quality of largesse is not flat; it is fully three-dimensional; it is a whole attitude to giving, whatever is given—be it money or advice or forgiveness or a mother’s milk or a martyr’s blood—that is applied to each instance of gift, without any self-consciousness about the role one assumes. Though he was talking about something else entirely, C. S. Lewis gave a wonderful description of the lightheartedness that largesse implies.

If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense His own already. So that when we talk of a man doing anything for God or giving anything to God, I will tell you what it is really like. It is like a small child going to its father and saying, ‘Daddy, give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present.’ Of course, the father does, and he is pleased with the child’s present. It is all very nice and proper, but only an idiot would think that the father is sixpence to the good on the transaction.2

The long-faced ostentation of sacrifice evinced by some virtuous persons is the exact antithesis of the playfulness that characterizes largesse. This isn’t to say that we can always smile while we give of ourselves: sometimes we can’t, and that must be admitted honestly rather than covered up, which would transgress against the quality of precision. But the baseline, the center from which our generosities and gratitudes flow, should be one of joy, laughter, rapidity. The hesitation to accept someone else’s gift that comes from shyness can be appropriate and endearing, but the hesitations that come from guilt and pride are altogether alien to Christ and to the right-minded Christian.3

One of the marks of largesse is to be found in the fact that it regularly exceeds what may be asked of it, for the mere pleasure of giving to and delighting someone else. The prototypical example is that of our Lord changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana; based on how much the evangelist tells us the stone jars of water held, the amount of wine produced by Jesus here was around a hundred and fifty gallons.4 And not just a hundred and fifty gallons of wine, but a hundred and fifty gallons of a vintage that people could tell was top shelf stuff, even when they’d already been partying long enough that the wine they originally had was all gone.

In other words, the gestures of largesse have no concern with justice or need or anything of that kind; the delight of giving is at its heart, both enjoying it oneself, and having the humility to allow others to enjoy it, too. More, delight in the superfluous is at its heart. Largesse values what it gives and does not waste it, since giving what has no value isn’t much of a gift; but it is not cautious or austere. It is a divine prodigality.

This can be contrasted with the temper of other Catholic traditions, which of course have the same doctrine of generosity and mercy but display it with a different style. The character of the Roman Rite proper, for instance, is a magnificence of law: not law as a system of punishment or a substitute for grace (though those are its perennial temptations), but as a system of order, exactitude, clarity, rationality; it is, as it were, Baroque where the Anglican patrimony is Gothic. The generosity of the Roman spirit is, accordingly, expressed much more in a style of cancelled debts and effectual decrees than in terms of kingliness and largesse. What the Roman tradition expresses by declaration, the English tradition expresses by tact.

The contraries of largesse—waste, stinginess, greed, and (we are too susceptible to this) being too proud to receive from others—require little comment. There are a hundred different ways to refuse gift, and they’re all alike: boring.

✠     ✠     ✠

1I specify absolver here because forgiveness can of course occur outside the sacrament of Confession, but the operative principle of forgiveness is the same.
2Mere Christianity, Book III, Chapter 21: Faith.
3Nothing, maybe, is more unlike largesse than that part of Aristotle’s concept of μεγαλοψυχία (megalopsuchia: ‘greatness of soul, proper pride, magnanimity, grandeur’) which makes the man who is both great and virtuous reluctant to accept things from others. Insofar as it means only an unwillingness to impose on others, there is much to be said for it, but the Nichomachean Ethics seems definitely to suggest that a generalized aversion to being a recipient is part of this proper pride that he called the crown of the virtues. The truth is that this disguises a vice which may or may not have been at work in Aristotle, though it definitely seems characteristic of ancient Greek culture: an inability to endure being less than others, a jealousy of one’s dignity, a determination not to be vulnerable or receptive or in need, that is utterly incompatible with Christian religion. Even apart from the economy of forgiveness, the fact that no creature could deserve to participate in the divine nature makes ‘proper pride’ a very petty refusal of God.
4Or around 570 liters, if you’re some kind of socialist.

No comments:

Post a Comment